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Uncovering Racist Housing Practices, One Deed At A Time

 This photo, from the Amazon Prime show "Them," shows an example of a restrictive covenant.
This photo, from the Amazon Prime show "Them," shows an example of a restrictive covenant.

In the decades after Emancipation, many African Americans left the rural South amid the Great Migration. In the meantime, many white home owners across the United States were encouraged to add language to their deeds, making it illegal for Black people to ever live in their houses.

A Supreme Court ruling nullified those racial restrictive covenants, but they’re still in the deeds. Now, citizen historians are working to find each one in Durham.

The initiative is a partnership by the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences, DataWorks NC, and the Durham County Register of Deeds. They’re working to teach people about the history and impacts of racial restrictive covenants, and show them how to locate and catalog them.

Attorney Andrew Wagner laid out the legal history in a recent presentation.

Prior to 1917, the separate but equal framework of Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land that allowed towns across the country to enact racist zoning laws that explicitly excluded non-white persons from expensive real estate in town.

Then, in 1917, the Supreme Court barred local governments from enacting overtly racist zoning laws.

That led many white property owners to look for a way around that, and racially restrictive covenants emerged. The idea was that a racial covenant is a "private transaction" that requires no government action, so it's not unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court disagreed with that in 1948, in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer.

Yet the racial covenants remain in many deeds.

“And like the Confederate monuments, these covenants were intended to intimidate and lay claim to land," Wagner said. "But unlike the monuments, which exist in the public eye, the covenants are buried. That means that unlike these statues, which can be torn down or removed, covenants must be discovered and excavated, before they can be addressed."

J.T. Tabron, an assistant register of deeds for Durham County, is one of the people looking for deeds with racial covenants.

"It was actually several years that I've been here before I realized that these things actually existed," Tabron said. "You go into the area where we keep our old books, where a lot of these restrictive covenants are going to be found. And you can open it up and there's something otherworldly about seeing a legal document in a government office that literally states that a negro, or someone with Negro blood cannot live here at all. And if they can, they have to be functioning as a housekeeper or a servant."

Tabron's conversation in the latest episode of Tested is edited for length and clarity.

JT: "Restrictive covenants are designed to help maintain the uniformity of an area, which in and of itself isn't always a bad thing. It was this this desire for uniformity by some people that led to these restrictive covenants being used as a tool of segregation and terror to control minority populations across the entire country, not just North Carolina, but based on North Carolina and several of the records I've seen in Durham specifically, most of these restrictions dealt with African Americans and limiting their access to property.

"That said, though, when looking across the nation, one can find covenant records that discriminate against Muslims, Asians, Irish people, Jewish individuals, or basically, whoever may have been considered an outgroup in a given community. When we start to talk about how these restrictive covenants began to be used, a really powerful element to observe is how closely the mass implementation and evolution of these instruments in the United States lines up with the great migration of Black Americans out of the southern part of the country."

JT: "That's a real question. One of the really fascinating points is just how you've got the community level of individuals who aren't excited about this influx of people who don't look like them. But something that was really interesting to me as I did my research is how private entities and the government sort of coalesced around these ideas and really supported their use.

"So one of the many conduits that caused the use of these covenants to travel with such urgency across the country was the National Association of Real Estate Boards – now known as the National Association of Realtors. It was created in 1908, and the goal at the time was to exert national influence on matters of real estate, which sounds pretty reasonable for a group of realtors. However, they began to adopt these policies and platforms of segregations.

"Here's a quote from article 34 of their 1924 code of ethics. It stated this is in their guidebook:

'A REALTOR should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.'

"So that's serious. And to be fair to the organization, they have made efforts to acknowledge their past missteps and try and move into a more forward facing position. So credit where it's due. But that said, an active push by private entities, like the National Association of Realtors, to see this type of segregation thrive back then wouldn't have been enough for these covenants to become as widespread as they did."

JT: "One of the things that's going to be really helpful is for people to see that this was a multi-level sort of pressure created on African Americans. It wasn't just oh, this one group or this one community. This was entire communities, the professionals in these communities, the lawyers, the judges, the government officials who worked in the register of deeds office, who didn't protect their own citizens.

"And I think drawing these lines to show people that this wasn't just Black people not "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps." I mean, even despite their best efforts, they would get kicked back off of these ladders. And having to start again, and again, and again, generation after generation, where you've got white families who were able to just continue to build upon what it is that they already had.

"I think that with this knowledge, we can help people who are well meaning but maybe not as well informed, sort of begin to appreciate a lot of the struggle that has been the result of largely white people putting these systems in place to maintain a level of superiority over another group for no other reason than the color of their skin."

 J.T. Tabron is an assistant register of deeds for Durham County. He is one of the people looking for deeds with racial covenants.
submitted image /
J.T. Tabron is an assistant register of deeds for Durham County. He is one of the people looking for deeds with racial covenants.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.